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Is Location Spoofing Wrong?

This is an ethical question that has been debated for at least decade, or since the personal variety of VPNs became popular tools for individual use outside of work. These tools were designed for security, which is what many still use them for today. Their capabilities are subject to abuse, however, and so the ethical dilemma presents itself. But on the specific question of location spoofing, can this be considered wrong across the board, or does it again really boil down to why someone would want to mask their real location? If the latter, then why do governments and companies keep going after VPNs?

Privacy

Privacy is a primary consideration that brings individuals to use personal VPNs. Privacy is essential to online security, and so it covers the need for a safeguard against hacker and cybercriminal attacks. For those netizens who care about privacy, a VPN serves as an excellent tool for hiding their trail on the Internet so that malicious actors cannot find or follow them and launch attacks against them. In this day and age when our data is a very valuable commodity and there is a lot of sensitive data being shared on the Net, we need these tools to make sure that our data does not fall into the wrong hands. One way that VPNs do this is by hiding a user’s location so that his or her online activities cannot be tracked.

Repressive governments are seen as the worst enemies of privacy, but there are far more data-hungry companies that mine people’s information relentlessly. These companies hate VPNs just as much as the harshest of regimes do. VPNs mean to both of them that they cannot get the information that they are seeking. In addition, even democratic governments hunger for our data because it makes surveillance easier. The ability of VPNs to spoof users’ locations makes it virtually impossible for these entities to conduct surveillance and do data mining on users. This protects the privacy of individuals against unwarranted surveillance and the theft of their data.

Privacy is a basic right not only in democratic nations but universally as declared by the United Nations. This means that attacks on VPNs as privacy and security tools is a violation of people’s right to preserve their privacy. When location spoofing is used to evade actions that violate this basic right, it cannot be considered wrong.

Access

VPNs are the enemy of all governments when it comes to access to information, and the difference between democratic ones and totalitarian ones is that the former don’t dare block VPNs. China and those who follow its lead can easily ban the use of VPNs because their governments have subdued the people enough to ensure that the ban will not result in unmanageable protests. Democratic countries and the companies registered in them are not so lucky. So VPN use continues to an extent, although some blocks are active, such as the Netflix ban on VPNs.

It would be easy to group these actions together and say that they are all OK because people have the right to freedom of information and access. We, however, want to go a little deeper than that. Repressive regimes hate VPN access because it takes control over the flow of information away from them and puts it into the hands of individual VPN users. In democratic countries, the VPN issue is more about content rights and profits than about trying to brainwash the citizenry.

If we are talking about people who are being prevented by governments from accessing information that they need versus information that they want, and free information versus proprietary information, the answer gets cloudy. The freedom to access information has also been declared a universal human right, but this does not mean that anyone can go and take sensitive proprietary data or indeed sensitive personal data. This would violate other rights. If, however, the information is shared freely – such as news and social posts – then there is no question about it in the minds of rights groups. But let’s take a look at the cloudy issues.

When VPNs are ironically used not to secure proprietary information from unauthorized third parties but to access it, it seems very wrong indeed. This can be applied to the Netflix ban on VPNs. Granted, it is not the content owners who are banning the VPNs but this online service that people pay to give them access. When content owners say that they agree to share the information with this person but not that person, it seems unfair at first. When we apply this decision to our personal lives, however, then we see their point, the right to choose what we give to some and what we withhold from others.

Businesses have the right in the United States to choose to whom they deny service. Using a VPN to access US TV shows is like wearing a disguise so that a business owner will grant service. Is this ethically wrong? The answer to that would really depend on why service was denied in the first place. Many reasons exist for denying service, including political, personal, and religious beliefs. The decision could be based on safety needs or prejudice, for instance, the first being accepted as legitimate and the second rejected as unjust. When it is a question of money, the lines blur even further. On the one hand, the US Constitution grants the people the freedom to make money. On the other hand, it grants the people the right to get what they pay for. There are just no clear-cut rules that define the how in this situation.

Content owners do not want their content to be viewed from certain countries. The people in these countries who pay Netflix to access this content think that they should not be denied what they paid for. Netflix is trying to resolve the dispute by breaking down the existing barriers. Meantime, however, they must honor their licensing agreements. Netflix does clearly state in its terms of use that it does not agree with VPN unblocking. But what about Netflix subscribers in the US, who are allowed to view the US library, who use VPNs for privacy and security? They are being blocked from accessing the service and being denied their right to privacy. This is not acceptable as explained above, but Netflix is blocking them anyway because it does not have the technical know-how to separate these subscribers from the ones outside the US that the content owners are really trying to keep out.

The Internet

A third main consideration regarding VPN use is the nature of the Internet. There are no borders online like there are in the real world. The Internet transcends borders because it was built to do so, to allow free access to information. The rules of the physical world do not really apply in the online world. What now of individual and business rights? It circles back to the concern about privacy and security, for starters. Both have the right to protect themselves against malicious actors online. To content owners, these users who want to access georestricted content are malicious actors. Yet to these subscribers, the businesses are trying to rein in the free Internet by blocking them from free access. From this angle, we can really not say whether or not location spoofing is wrong. This is the point at which we become entangled in the never-ending loop that prevents resolution to the debate. All we can hope for is an agreeable solution such as the global licensing that Netflix is trying to work on.

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